Recently, I had to explain to a friend without internet access who Werner Herzog is. It was an unusual challenge at a time when many of my friendships exist online, shaped by a lingua franca of common memes — how does one explain any major cultural icon without Google, Wikipedia, or YouTube? I settled on offering my friend the following stories: the process of making Fitzcarraldo; the nihilistic monologue he delivers in Burden of Dreams, the documentary about making Fitzcarraldo; the other nihilistic monologue he delivers over footage of a wandering penguin in the documentary Encounters at the End of the World; and the time he got shot by a sniper and commented dryly that it was not a “significant” bullet. In short, I spoke more about Herzog the meme than Herzog the filmmaker: his Bavarian accent, his deadpan delivery, his penchant for finding drudgery in the absurd and absurdity in drudgery.
At this point, it seems like Herzog has to be knowingly participating in his own memes of production. He’s certainly aware of people using him in memes: in a video over at The Daily Beast in which he analyzes Kanye West’s “Famous,” he observes that “there’s a lot of doppelgängers pretending to be me, trying to speak in my accent, my voice, answering things on Facebook, on Twitter. It’s all impostors.” In that same video, he describes storytelling as the art of telling one narrative while simultaneously in pursuit of a “parallel story that only occurs in the collective mind of the audience.” The parallel story I found myself faced with while watching Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, Herzog’s most recent documentary, was one of taking a subject readily dismissed with memetic shorthand (the internet) and exploring its deeper, weirder truths. As in many of his other films, the subject matter is paradoxically both crucial and incidental: Lo and Behold is a film about the internet in the same way that Fitzcarraldo is about an opera house, or Grizzly Man is about some guy who really liked bears. Herzog makes films about humans trying to actualize dreams — about people in pursuit of something far greater than themselves, and the contradictions and calamities endured in that pursuit.
In Lo and Behold, he at times goes for breadth over depth, providing fairly superficial context for topics as far-flung as internet history, radiation sickness, game addiction, artificial intelligence, cyberwarfare, and the Internet of Things. Herzog treats his interview subjects (who range from legends of internet history to recovering gaming addicts to cosmologists studying deep space) to disarmingly intimate questions about the ambitions of technology, such as “Does the internet dream of itself?” Intermittently he ruminates on malevolent dwarves and fantasizes about a Chicago emptied of humans by a successful SpaceX mission to Mars (a sequence that made me long for a Herzog documentary about the internet that veers deeper into the kind of illuminating absurdity he pulled off so beautifully in Lessons of Darkness — what would a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi history of the internet look and sound like, and could anyone but Herzog pull it off?).
It’s in the midst of these weird ruminations, as well as the more polished invective, that it’s hard to believe Herzog isn’t in on the joke of his own memeification. There is little in this world as satisfying as listening to Werner Herzog express disgust at or disdain for something — and little as unnerving, as his loathing often suggests a way of living few are capable of pulling off. When Herzog declares the hallways of UCLA’s Boelter Hall “repulsive” before entering the college’s weird shrine to the “birthplace of the internet,” the audience doesn’t laugh because the hallway is perfectly fine — we laugh because we have no better way to contend with the idea of living a life in such uncompromising pursuit of what Herzog calls “ecstatic truth” that an uninspiring hallway can inspire revulsion. It’s also, frankly, far easier and more entertaining to formulaically imitate Herzogian disgust than Herzogian joy: just insert the words “agony,” “murder,” or “unbearable cruelty of the universe” into a sentence, deliver with flat Bavarian intensity, and boom! You’ve invoked all the signifiers of Herzog without having to contend with the actual strangeness or complexity of his oeuvre (she typed, after renewing the domain name wernerherzogvalentines.com).
One of the more popular Herzog memes
Some of the most compelling aspects of Lo and Behold aren’t Herzog providing tweetable, nihilistic soundbites, however; they’re moments that showcase the deep generosity and compassion that the filmmaker affords many of his subjects. For example, the victims of radio sensitivity (people made physically ill by cell phone and wifi signals) that Herzog meets in the National Radio Quiet Zone are granted a degree of dignity and kindness that, it’s clear in interviews, they were rarely offered while living in our hypermediated world. Herzog even elicits compassion for figures I might otherwise have been hard-pressed to find redeeming. In one sequence, he juxtaposes astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz’s devastating critique of Mars exploration with an immediate cut to a silent, sullen-looking Elon Musk. It would have been easy to let that zinger stand, but instead, after a long silence, the tech billionaire and SpaceX founder proceeds to respond to an unheard question about his dreams, confessing that he “only remembers the nightmares.” In that moment, Musk briefly ceases to be the cartoonish Bond villain I typically take him for and reveals himself as just another vulnerable, terrified man trying to build something greater than himself in a world that he clearly suspects is too far gone for salvation.
There are a few chapters of the film that touch on doomsday anxieties and depression at the cruelties of humanity — a story about the unspeakable cruelty of online mobs, discussion of the possibility of a solar flare destroying all human communication systems, a look at the threats of cyber warfare and the inherent insecurity of the network — but they’re presented not as cautions against a networked world so much as the grave realities of it. We continue to live in and build a networked world in spite of all those harms and threats — in spite of not knowing what benefits actually emerge from, say, building football-playing robots capable of defeating a FIFA World Cup champion. When Herzog asks Joydeep Biswas, the Carnegie Mellon student working on those football-playing robots, if he loves one of the particularly talented machines, Biswas’s sincere, enthusiastic “yes” isn’t really played for laughs, any more than the film’s closing sequence of residents in the National Radio Quiet Zone enjoying the simpler pleasures of their offline community. It’s by diving into that very human in spite of that Herzog reminds me why his disdainful bon mots are more hopeful and more generous than he’s often given credit for, and where the film offers some of its more compelling observations.